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It’s tough to admit in these politically correct times of ours, but one of the most influential, enduring, and celebrated of all classical works, the “Symphonie Fantastique” of Hector Berlioz, was meant to depict a drug trip. According to the composer’s own detailed program, his symphony aimed to describe the tortured dreams of a sensitive artist in lovesick despair who takes an overdose of opium and becomes haunted by visions of an unattainable woman. In the course of its five movements, he first tempers his depression, volcanic love, and jealous rages through religious consolation; then encounters her at a festive ball; seeks solace wandering in the countryside only to have her disrupt his idyll; is condemned and guillotined for murdering her; and finally sees his funeral plummet into a witches’ desecration of the Sabbath, which she leads to a climactic orgy. Did Berlioz actually compose his Fantastique “under the influence”? That’s unclear, but the tale of the work’s creation and its autobiographical roots is just as bizarre as the story it portrays. In September 1827, an impressionable 23-year-old Berlioz attended a performance by a visiting Shakespeare troupe at the Odeon Theatre in Paris and was overwhelmed not only by his first exposure to “Hamlet” but also by Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Ophelia. Deeply smitten, Berlioz desperately tried to attract her attention, but the superstar spurned the unknown composer’s attempts, even declining to attend two concerts he arranged for her. When she finally returned home without meeting him, Berlioz sublimated his frustration into the “Symphonie Fantastique,” his first major work. (The final movement was impelled by rumors that Smithson was having an affair with her manager; as revenge, Berlioz symbolically cast her into hell as a whore.) The completion of the story is odder still. Berlioz won a prestigious prize and spent two years in Rome, where he wrote the even more overtly autobiographical “L�lio,” a sequel of music (largely derived from previous works) linked by narration depicting an artist’s return to life after the nightmares of the “Symphonie Fantastique.” Upon returning to Paris, Berlioz rented new rooms only to discover that the previous occupant had been none other than Smithson! Overwhelmed by this coincidence, Berlioz arranged through an intermediary for her to attend a concert featuring the Fantastique and his new “L�lio.” Upon hearing the “L�lio” narrator urge how his heart yearned for Ophelia, Smithson realized that it was she who had inspired this fervent outpouring of creativity. They met and ultimately married, but didn’t live happily ever after — Smithson couldn’t possibly live up to the Shakespearean goddess Berlioz had idealized. But back to the music. In retrospect, we acknowledge the “Symphonie Fantastique” as the first full musical outpouring of Romanticism, in which impulsive personal inspiration abrades the constraints of formality. Berlioz was the ideal vehicle for this venture, as he was the first famous composer who didn’t play an instrument and thus could view music abstractly; as he put it in his extensive M�moires, he was freed from the “tyranny of fingers” and “ordinary sonorities” to “compose freely and in silence.” His freedom was manifested in both the novel structure and sound of the Symphonie. The entire work is unified by an id�e fixe, a recurrent and strikingly complex theme symbolizing his beloved — 40 measures long, jagged and deeply chromatic, it keeps yearning upward only to fall back in despair. While Beethoven, for one, had recalled prior ideas in the finales of his Fifth and Ninth symphonies, Berlioz’s innovation of using the same theme throughout paved the way for Wagner’s leitmotifs that would soon transform opera. Similarly, while Haydn had invoked militia and Beethoven had summoned scenes of nature in their symphonies, never before had a concert-hall work tried to depict a specific story, and so Berlioz’s Fantastique served as a clear herald of the programmatic tone-poems that came to dominate the late 19th century. The instrumentation itself was novel — harps, cornets (used only in dance halls at the time), ophicleides (a deep, rasping forerunner of the tuba), and a battery of percussion. Berlioz also specified numerous innovative effects — an off-stage oboe to imply distance, violins playing with the wood of their bows to invoke terror, and a strikingly modern minimalist passage of chords for four solo tympani to suggest echoing thunder. Berlioz took great care to ensure that his aural conception would be followed in performance. Thus, beyond exhaustive markings to specify dynamics, accents and phrasing, his score is replete with detailed instructions, ranging from a suggestion how to rehearse a tricky rhythmic passage to a defense of a “wrong” note. Of all the conductors to have tackled Berlioz on record, Pierre Monteux had the closest ties to the composer. Monteux’s first serious job (which lasted 17 years) was as first violist and then assistant conductor of the Colonne Orchestra. Its founder, Edouard Colonne, had known Berlioz and had absorbed the composer’s interpretive outlook first-hand. As the basis for his 1931 recording, Monteux used a score annotated with Colonne’s directions. (The precious score was lost when Nazis looted Monteux’s home.) Despite three remakes, Monteux insisted that this first outing with his Paris Symphony Orchestra (on Pearl 9012 or Music & Arts 732) was his finest. Indeed, it’s remarkably clean and transparent, refined but with a marvelous lilt and spirit. Its style is the closest link we will ever have to its creator. A different but related type of validity arises in two original-instrument versions, which attempt to replicate the sonority Berlioz intended by using the instruments (gut strings, small harps, stopped rather than keyed brass, genuine ophicleides), techniques (minimal vibrato, steady bowing, moderate tempos), and tuning (A 435 Hz “A”) of his time. Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (1987, EMI 49541) were the first to apply this approach. They still startle with their lean and classic sound. The musicians are even arrayed according to Berlioz’s seating plan, which provides a natural “stereo” effect by dividing the violins, harps, and tympani to the sides of the stage. Yet there are only 82 players, whereas Berlioz wanted several hundred and settled for “only” 130 at the premi�re. John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips 434 402) went a step further — their 1991 period-instrument recording was made in the very auditorium where Berlioz attended concerts, formed his sense of orchestral tone, and staged his own first performances! Thus, their tight, focused sonic clarity is achieved not by electronic manipulation of multiple microphones but through the natural ambience of the hall, yielding our most accurate aural likeness of the sonic image that fueled Berlioz to create his work. Despite the scrupulously authentic sound, Gardiner tweaks the score’s prescriptions with considerable latitude in tempo, balance, and dynamics — expressive liberties that breathe spontaneity and life into what could otherwise have been a dry academic exercise in historical restoration. Berlioz himself reportedly was a physically active conductor yet sought clear and moderate results, letting his music speak largely for itself. (Of course, given the amount of detail in his scores, it’s hardly surprising that he saw little need to augment his own directions.) And yet, notions of “authenticity” seem somewhat misplaced for so personal a work that bursts with the spirit of Romanticism. The earliest and most extreme recorded example of a distinctive proactive interpretive approach is a 1938 account (Lys 280) in which Oskar Fried jolts the U.S.S.R. State Symphony with such sudden and wildly impulsive tempo swings (especially in the fourth movement, which, after all, is a steady march) that the orchestra can barely follow. Other fleet and headstrong accounts that invoke the youthful ardor of the composer include those by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (both in 1954, RCA 68444, and in 1962, RCA 68979), in which the final two movements spring to life; Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony (Mercury 34328), who clock the fastest reading on record (45 minutes) with sensationally ardent breakneck tempos; and Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw (Beulah 117), abetted by Decca’s wonderfully detailed “full frequency range” recording. Leonard Bernstein, too, is rich and impassioned. He digs into the music with vibrant enthusiasm in 1968 with the New York Philharmonic (Sony SMK 60968, which includes his lecture tracing the id�e fixe with musical examples), and in a 1976 remake with the Orchestre National de France (EMI 69002) that combines his edgy excitement with a mellow French sonority. The English developed a strong affinity for Berlioz, beginning with Sir Charles Hall�, whose still-famous namesake orchestra was begun in 1857, in part to expose his friend’s work. Sir Thomas Beecham’s famed 1959 Fantastique (EMI 64032) is heavily inflected yet full of �lan. But it was Sir Colin Davis who sparked modern interest in the composer through a landmark cycle of lesser-known Berlioz. His fourth recorded Fantastique (a 2000 London Symphony concert on LSO 0007) observes the score’s dynamics and tempos but derives exquisite subtlety from emotional reserve and superb playing. Among the less conventional approaches, especially fascinating is a 1968 reading by Leopold Stokowski (London 430 137), a conductor famed for his sensitivity to instrumental color. Nothing subtle here — Stokowski wallows in the Berlioz effects, producing a ripe, luscious portrait, in which accompanying figures leap into the spotlight, abetted by exaggerated stereo imaging and, less fortunately, heavy overload distortion. Also attracted by tone coloration rather than expressive content is Pierre Boulez, whose 1967 London Symphony recording (Sony SM3K 64103) was reviled for being too detached, but achieves a harrowing atmosphere through its chillingly precise playing and razor-sharp recording. Equally unsettling is the 1961 record by Igor Markevitch and the Orchestre Lamoureux (DG 447 406), a remarkable portrayal of suppressed passion, its restless energy constantly roiling beneath a tightly controlled surface. What a trip! Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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